Transubstantiated Architecture: Painterly Perspective and Piety

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 15

The discovery, or rediscovery, of linear perspective in the Italian Renaissance is usually credited to Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the dome of the Florence Cathedral. Another nearby monument that may be the first existing example of one-point perspective is the funerary chapel in Santa Maria Novella painted by Masaccio in 1428. In a complex and theologically rich explication of Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, with the Virgin, Saint John and Donors, John Moffitt argues that the point to which all of the lines converge is placed at the bottom of the picture in order to correspond with the elevation of the host during Mass. Thus God the Father stands on an altar and presents his crucified Son to the viewer within a perspectival architecture that converges on the Eucharist. The consecrated host becomes the liturgical focal point of the chapel and of the painting.

Later, Raphael’s Disputa in the Vatican stanze has the Eucharist in a monstrance as the focus of the painting and the saints’ disputa or discussion. The consecrated host is again the geometric vanishing point of the saints, who are seated in an apse-like semicircle, surmounted by the Trinity. Likewise, images of the Last Supper such as Leonardo’s famous painting in Milan often focus on Christ and the Eucharist as the center point of converging lines. In Santa Maria presso San Satiro, Milan, Leonardo’s friend the architect Donato Bramante created a “transubstantiated” architecture where the trompe l’oeil sanctuary converges like a painting in order to create the semblance of a much deeper apse. The architecture of Bramante’s renovation includes a coffered barrel vault, Corinthian pilasters and rondels inspired by Masaccio’s Trinity (by way of Alberti’s church of San Andrea in Mantua). Seen from the central aisle the punto centrico, or vanishing point, of the architecture converges on the Corpus Christi within a monstrance on the altar. This “spiritual vanishing point,” which may be related to the monstrance and to the elevation of the host at Mass, is also focused on the icon of the Virgin along with the tabernacle (added later). According to this fascinating study, the invention of one-point perspective is inextricably tied up with the promotion of the Eucharist and belief in transubstantiation during the Renaissance.

Masaccio's Holy Trinity. Image: Domain

These ideas of “host worship,” are further developed as a way for art and architecture to focus on and give importance to such a physically small element as the Eucharistic host. One example is the Spanish custodias procesionales, in which large Eucharistic monuments are carried through the streets to enable the faithful to see and worship Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. “In liturgical language a ‘custodia’ is the receptacle that guards the Sacred Host and which during the Mass remains in sight of the faithful so that they can contemplate the miracle of transubstantiation, declared dogma by the Catholic Church in 1215.”1 Moffitt calls these grand monstrances “micro architecture” due to the fact that these centralized tempiettos, or elaborately crafted towers, are composed of tiny classical elements that can reference the architecture of the city. Like a monstrance, the custodia is meant to exhibit and frame a small Eucharistic host and make it a visual focus. A magnificent example is the custodia procesionale of Seville, which has four levels depicting statues of the Fathers of the Church; the host itself with priests celebrating mass; the agnus Dei; and the Holy Trinity with a statue of Faith on the dome. There is a fascinating connection to the royal chapel of the Escorial from the sixteenth century, in which a small tabernacle is surmounted by a larger one almost like a custodia surmounting a monstrance. The chapel of the Transparente by Narciso Tome in Toledo Cathedral is a tour de force of architecture, sculpture, and symbolism done in the eighteenth century. Above the altar and the framed statue of the Madonna and child is the central motif of the Gloria, the exposed Eucharist from which explodes golden rays of light and angels in ecstasy. Moffitt interprets this baroque confection as having an underlying architecture of forced perspectives and multiple vanishing points which may be related to “anamorphic” perspective. But fundamental to his argument is the analysis of artwork composed upon a central focal point, typically coinciding with an object of devotion, such as the consecrated host.

Along with a number of oversights, such as calling Saint Thomas Aquinas the founder of the Dominican order, some of the specific discoveries or textual connections in this book seem merely speculative. Images, though profuse, could have been of higher quality. However, the book offers a rich art-historical and theological framework for understanding perspective and its use to explicate Scripture and Renaissance and medieval texts. Painterly Perspective and Piety reflects fascinating in-depth research which shows the way in which the Eucharist has been central to the development of one-point perspective.